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Preface to the 2nd Edition of The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid (Brandeis University Press, 2023)
The publication of this edition of The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of my wife and me leaving our house in the Maine woods where we lived for over twenty-three years and raised our two children. This book stands as a testimony to our experience, though I am aware of how partial a testimony it is. Any sum of the days is false because it is a sum. The days are moments and the richness of the moments inside and outside of that house was steadily remarkable. When, after we left, I returned to the house on a few occasions scattered over the years, I wept. I wept for the gone years; I wept for the simple beauty of the house and gardens; I wept for the wisdom that leaving gave me, that sense of the permanent transience of my life. Yet within the weeping was a joy, a sense of the thrill of being, that the house gave me and that will never leave me.
As participants in the Back-to-the-Land Movement of the 1970s, my wife and I did not know what we were signing up for. We had a hunger to connect with the earth and the authenticity of doing it yourself. We wanted to create our lives from the ground up. Such philosophy as we had consisted of believing that what we didn’t know, we would learn. No ideological notions drove us; we were not out to prove anything or show how virtuous we might be. If our enthusiastic ignorance was one irony that went with our enterprise, another was our moving to a place that had largely been abandoned. The house we built stood in a clearing that once had held a farmhouse, a presence that the remnants of a cellar, a dug well, and a dead elm all testified to. Around us stood woods that once had been cleared fields for crops, cows, and sheep. Cellar holes swamped by wild raspberry canes, piles of rotted lumber, caches of discarded bottles and jars, stands of lilacs, all formed part of the left-behind landscape. The United States had gone west and had gone a long time ago. Our town’s population peaked around the time of the Civil War. All the hard work that went into creating those farms made for a haunting silence as we walked what once had been roads. I imagined children sledding down the hill around the corner from our house. I imagined the teams of oxen that moved the stones that went into the foundations that held up those ruined houses. I imagined quilting bees and barn raisings. The hand of time was palpable. The American blandishments about progress disappeared in the breeze sifting through the myriad pines, aspens, and birches. We were elsewhere.
And yet that elsewhere was a typical American place—one of starting anew. A great question confronted us: How do you want to live on this earth? The question did not involve money or ambition or career or status. We knew that the question did not matter to most people. Simple living did not figure in a society devoted to broadcasting endless notions of glamour, comfort, consumption, and convenience, notions that did not appeal to us, that seemed like nothing so much as shortcuts to nowhere. In our out-of-it, backwoods, very-low-tech way (pitcher pump in the kitchen along with a circa 1920 cook stove) we were interested in a different economy, in what the poet Gary Snyder referred to as “earth household.” The capital-E Economy that drove the nations of the world was not an economy in the sense of balancing matter with spirit but a conceit based on machine-abetted progress, an exaggerated fairy tale of endless “more” of everything, a parody of the earth’s abundance that had nothing to do with living harmoniously with the earth. We were seeking reverence and the attentiveness that went with reverence. We esteemed, first of all, the vegetative world, the great green gift.
Our stance, which was far from uncommon in the early 1970s (other families lived off the grid in our little town), stemmed from various sources, such as the counterculture classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World by Helen and Scott Nearing, the amazing can-do ethos of The Whole Earth Catalog, and what can only be called a vibration, a desire to return to some notion of the garden, to literally root ourselves. Politically, the United States felt like rubble as the war in Vietnam ground to its vicious conclusion while the steadfast commitment to opposing communism countenanced operations like the one that overthrew Chile’s elected government and led to the eventual murder there of tens of thousands of “leftists.” Calling attention to these facts might seem far-fetched in the context of growing carrots and splitting firewood but our withdrawal to the woods came from a deeply felt mix of idealism and disillusion. Plainly, economic and military power ruled and could justify whatever it did in the name of whatever cause or slogan it chose to use. Plainly, that power had no use for the earth, which was only a backdrop upon which to inflict whatever savagery (typically aerial) that power chose to unleash. Similarly, the earth was only a backdrop for the consumer world in which people were supposed to indulge endlessly in their myriad choices.
Simplicity meant neither asceticism nor environmentalist sanctimony. Simplicity meant real in all the fullness that word contained: sweating through hot days and bundling up on cold ones, cutting the wood and sitting by the fire, dealing with the black flies when we were planting our garden, cooking each meal from scratch, hauling water during arid times and donning boots during mud season, being with the silence and indulging the continual round of talk within our house, learning about mice and moose, being awed by snowstorms and still, midsummer days of northern languor. It was one thing to hear that to every time there is a season; it was another to live it, to let the primacy of the earth be our teacher.
We had other teachers, older Mainers who knew a great deal about living on the earth and who, in their Yankee way (reticent, wry, self-denigrating) told us how we might go about living on our patch of earth: what to grow, when to harvest and how to preserve, how to use wood stoves and tend to chimneys, how to put up firewood, to say nothing of telling us what the bears and coyotes were up to. Any romanticism attached to these people would be misplaced. They knew hard times and hard work. By all the American standards, their lives had not been notable success stories. In the face of various varieties of indifference, they persevered and, by and large, were utterly free of self-pity. In their shrewd ways they could be withering, as when, while still a chainsaw tyro, I took my saw to a local repair shop where the proprietor pronounced that I was the owner of the “dullest chain I ever saw” with which “you’d do well to cut apple sauce.” Point taken. For our neighbors to get beyond their habitual self-reliance took some doing, but they were intrigued that we had forsaken whatever advantages we may have had to live in their midst. They may have thought we were touched in the head, but they were too polite to tell us. Instead, they grimaced as gracefully as they could at our ignorance and corrected us.
Our backgrounds consisted of educations that were paid for by parents (though I worked during college to help pay) who wanted us to be professional people and live accordingly—with electricity. Primal communing with the earth was not in the picture. Life was meant to be urban, yet something in my wife and me led us astray, a hunger for what wasn’t manufactured or advertised or termed as “news” or “lifestyle,” something ancient that dwarfed one life yet could feed that life literally and figuratively. I have used the word “hunger” purposefully, because food was central to our lives. Vegetarians by inclination and happenstance—no refrigerator—we cooked together (Janet was the baker), canned and stored. Wholesome food, much of which we grew in our garden, was an answer to the nightmare of factory farming and the veritable holocaust of caged and tethered creatures. We took charge of our sustenance. It tasted delicious. No one said our food had to be “fast.” First, it had to be food.
The other sustenance was poetry. I’d read it steadily since high school and wrote poems during my college years, but only in the solitude of the woods did I start to understand poetry. By that I mean how poetry was a way of life, similar to how we ate and kept our selves warm and went for walks in the woods, an economy of being. The economy was manifest in the art—only so many words to write the poem—but the economy was manifest in the spiritual nature of poetry—all that was unseen yet wanted to be expressed, all the connections that metaphor made palpable, the richness of the weave of the world and a person in the world. Poetry for me was neither literary nor academic. The voice of poetry was in each person, a birthright largely stifled by the society that had other concerns but one that had an ancient provenance that was very much alive in the sheer praise of being through language, the great feeling that none of this had to be and yet was. As I built up my library over the years, I sank more and more deeply into the past of poetry—the myriad voices that wrought life into that blend of rhythmic, sonic, perspicacious yet magical language. I wrote hundreds of poems and had no particular idea where they came from. I believed in the poet as a medium, a catcher of the voices, a wanderer in the vast electrical storm of feeling, a very freelance historian.
Living among the trees, I learned something of their patience, their gravity and their dignity. Yearning for the sunlight yet stolid, weighty yet supple, they spoke to both the earth and the sky. I, however, was human. My economy thrived on keenness: every step an arrival, every intake of breath an affirmation. Though I appreciated the depth of being the woods presented me with, I felt the woods inside of me, the harmony of living simply yet respecting the endless complexity of the connections that knit the creatures and plants and trees and air and water and soil together. When scientists began to discern that trees helped one another, I wasn’t surprised. By definition, the woods are a mutual-aid society. That we turn away from the earth-gift that the woods represent in favor of our heedless inventions is one of the gravest human failings and one to which many spiritual legends have called attention. Our knowing is disastrously overrated.
It’s best to end this consideration with a memory. I get up from bed in the middle of the night, take a flashlight and head downstairs from the loft where my wife and I sleep. She is asleep as are our children. I go to the wood stove, open it, rake the embers forward, put in a log, wait for it to catch, put in another log, wait on that log, then close the door and open the air vent enough to encourage the fire but not too much. I go outside and stand on the back porch. It’s started to snow—huge, thick flakes coming down in the dark silence. I go to the edge of the porch and stick a hand out to feel the snow. I stand there transfixed, dreaming and not dreaming before the cold air pinches me and I head back inside where I will lie down, snuggle close to my wife, and eventually fall asleep. None of us can fathom the depth of our living on the earth. I have had intimations, though. That is something.
Copyright 2023 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser is the author of twenty books including novels, a memoir, a book of short stories, and many books of poetry. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. From 2000 to 2005, he served as poet laureate of the state of Maine. He is the founder of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. He currently resides in Montpelier, Vermont.
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orderingRoad Washes Out!! so enjoying your remarkable History Hotel. Am a good friend of Peter Cooleys.
I sit and read this on my phone, on my deck above a blooming orange tree, the scent reminding me of the drive through orchards on the way to my grandparents’ house on Foothill Blvd , windows rolled down, hand out, feeling the push of the wind. A song sparrow lands on the oriole jelly feeder, head aslant, a yellow rumped warbler waits in the palo verde tree below. Tashi sighs, looks up briefly. Then lays hergray muzzle back on the outdoor rug flecked with discarded sunflower seed shells. Bird din is louder, hummingbird scolding, Bewick’s wren impatient, providing burbling music for the inadequate solar fountain in the birdbath. Sun warm on my naked head, I will head into the house so the birds can sip and nibble all the foods the books say they don’t eat, but I lean back and close my eyes and listen. I’ll go back in the house…soon
Lovely writing, Barbara. Thank you!
I am moved by you going back and crying.
We lived off the grid in the 90s in the middle of nowhere near Madrid, in Spain. Solar panels, wood-burning stoves, a well, a pump, satellite internet (!) – we had a big dish on the little house whose roof was home to the solar panels – and the poplars very often got in the way of the signal. We planted trees, pruned them and the vines, harvested grapes, apples, pears, claudias, figs… The walsnot tree bombarded us with walnuts.
The work was hard, the connection with the earth and the water profound, the joys unbound, the petrichor was payment enough.
We did it because we were poor at the time and that was the only way to have a home. It was tough love and paradise. But we were no longer young and strong enough and had to sell.
The place will be forever in our hearts. It changed us in subtle and important ways for the better.
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Thank you, Rose Mary. This paragraph gives me an insight into your life I never would have guessed.
I so remember you telling us about those days, Baron — and it’s so good to hear about them again!
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